Lightning Rods
  • March 26, 2012


  • Helen DeWitt

    3Lightning Rods

    Haruki Murakami

  • Judged by

    Michelle Orange


The ToB gods smiled on this pairing. Or maybe smirked. Anyway, these two books offered up a pretty glaring introductory point of comparison, and I’m feeling obedient: In 1Q84 a young woman trapped in a parallel reality reads In Remembrance of Things Past to pass the time while she (or perhaps her shadow being) lies low in a safe house after assassinating a religious cult leader because he rapes little girls (or maybe just their shadow beings). Reading Proust also relieves this woman from her cosmic pining for a man with whom her single interaction was a little handholding 20 years earlier, when they were both 10 years old.

Michelle Orange is the author of This Is Running for Your Life (FSG, Fall 2012) and The Sicily Papers, and the editor of From the Notebook: The Unwritten Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Nation, McSweeney’s, and other publications. She is currently a staff critic at Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

In Lightning Rods a young woman reads In Remembrance of Things Past in the original French to pass the time while she is getting reamed from behind through a cut-out in the wall between the men’s and women’s washrooms of a corporate office, having signed up to provide exactly this service as part of a preventative sexual harassment policy pioneered by a vacuum salesman with P.T. Barnum-ian ambition and a very active fantasy life. Reading Proust is the first step for this young woman, who shares her colleague’s belief that this kind of transaction is “no different from holding hands,” on the path to becoming a Supreme Court justice.

Both of these books take place in the recent past and glide along the exospheric edge of a recognizable reality, rearranging time slightly enough to set the world onto a new axis. And both Helen DeWitt and Haruki Murakami boil the novel down to one of its basic precepts: Here’s my brain: nifty, right? The experience of reading their latest books together is initially uncanny because of the many direct confluences, oppositions, and inversions in style, story, and subject. But especially as I was frog-stroking my way through 1Q84, which I maybe don’t have to say was read second, the pairing raised certain questions about what a novel should do.

With both books you notice right away that instead of being invited into a fully formed world you are watching one develop. Lightning Rods begins with the close third person introduction of Joe, a failing door-to-door salesman who takes solace and no small amount of pride in his unnervingly well-imagined sexual fantasies. In the second of DeWitt’s quick-hit chapters Joe has an epiphanic encounter with a heron during a Special K run and the novel’s conceit is born. 1Q84 opens with Aomame, a fitness instructor and sometime assassin, stuck in Tokyo traffic. Taking her taxi driver’s advice to climb down an emergency ladder off the elevated highway to the street below but ignoring his parting words about how “things are not always what they seem,” Aomame enters a second, more mystical world, one with two moons in the sky and little people hiding in dead goats.

Lighting Rods captivates from the start. The first 50 pages, especially, evoke the death-spin insularity of the voices in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. DeWitt has the knack for making formal daring feel utterly familiar. She commits fully, thrillingly, to the idiom of pragmatic self-interest as the stuff of her characters’ inner lives. Joe and the others cogitate and address themselves with the fathomless logic and received life-management platitudes that you imagine must be hiding something terrifying when you encounter people who actually talk that way. Excepting Joe’s fantasies, which are so vividly filthy they could only be human, with these characters what lies behind the mask is another mask. And yet if the tone is often wicked—it’s a very funny book—it’s never snide. If anything, the characters cross into poignancy, appearing to the reader like small laboratory animals dutifully negotiating an elaborate maze. It’s a sweet spot between satire and parody, and the animating question quickly becomes how DeWitt is going to hold that domain over the next 200 pages and get out of this mother of a conceit. What follows is like watching Houdini wriggle out of the world’s most elaborate metaphor, hook by hook.

As I understand it there are two kinds of literary people: Those who don’t read Murakami and those who defend whatever he does. After his running book, which I enjoyed for the wonderful descriptions of the divine boredom and quotidian intrigues of long-distance running, this is my first Murakami novel. And dude, did I make up for whatever sins are implied in that confession. 1Q84 is a brick of a book, full of potential but frustratingly impenetrable.

In places I could see the appeal of Murakami’s style, if not his prose. You can go for chapters without underlining a sentence with pleasure (though you might underline a few boners instead). The emphasis is less on the sentences themselves than their layering and arrangement for cumulative effect. It’s like reading underwater—at times it feels extraordinary, silky, buoyant, and strange, like moving through a new world. At other times it just feels like it’s taking twice as long to get anywhere.

The plot and all its dangling parts are too convoluted to get into—I probably couldn’t if I tried. I have noted that some of his devotees cheerfully say the same about 1Q84. If I have it right, appreciating Murakami is largely about appreciating the window on the way his mind works, his tics and his style—that underwater world is the book’s world. And 1Q84 does feel like what might happen if an agile and eccentric imagination sat down and free-wrote for 925 pages.

But where DeWitt makes a tight spiral outward from her fantastical idea, the Murakami is one long involution. What feels like improvisational plot spinning results in some pretty shabby twists: the unresolved image of 10-year-old girls mounting the paralyzed bodies of middle-aged men, for instance; the many “by the way, have you heard this esoteric cultural anecdote that I, the character, will now recite by way of inserting a broadly articulated theme/totally anomalous digression into the novel” references for references’ sake; the ill-understood point of these “little people” and the invocations of incest; the unsubtle suggestions about what makes a good book and how to read this one.

By 1Q84’s last 200 pages I was reading on a chocolate reward system. Earlier on I had hoped to be won over. It seemed impossible not to be drawn into a book that explores the importance of binding personal and collective stories and the dangers of getting stuck in the parallel reality of unrequited or otherwise impossible love. If I could use the term ‘wheelhouse’ without wanting to kill myself, I’d say the themes of 1Q84 were squarely in mine. And yet what I have learned about myself is that I’d rather read about rude corporate glory-hole sex than the celestial boning of a minor and her “freshly made vagina.” (During this scene, it must be noted, Murakami describes the minor as “like a lightning rod.”)

I did enjoy parts of 1Q84—especially passages about the Sunday-hating childhood of Aomame’s beloved Tengo, and Aomame’s electrifying showdown with one of her victims. But by the third book the thematic incoherence and numbing style are tougher to forgive, more taxing, bordering, in fact, on shit-show territory. There is an interesting overlap in the way these books play with repetition as a rhythmic and choral device. It’s a good lesson in the difference between what qualifies as hypnotically recursive and what’s just skull hammeringly repetitive.

They also share what I found to be one of Lightning Rods’s serious weaknesses: the refusal to reckon with female sexuality in a convincing way. Sex is central in both of these books, and yet the women are completely detached from it. Aomame thinks of her desire as something to be worked off, like a cheeseburger. The successful lightning rods are the ones with the “strength” to treat sex as a career move, nothing more. In Lightning Rods female sexuality is a conspicuous dead spot; in 1Q84 it’s more like a Rorschach splotch—adjustable, inconsistent, whatever you need it to be, really.

I’m not sure either of these very performative novels is meant to be loved the way we want to love a book—fully and completely, heart and mind—but I certainly admired one of them more.

Have I said enough? Lightning Rods takes it.

TODAY’S WINNER: Lightning Rods

Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John: I think Michelle Orange did a tremendous job on her judgment today, particularly in how she juxtaposes the books and teases out some similarities and differences that are both specific to these works, and also make me reflect on books and reading in general.

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I was especially struck by her observation, “With both books you notice right away that instead of being invited into a fully formed world you are watching one develop,” because that’s the exact sensation I had as I read both books, that they’re tied to very specific imaginations and world views and what we’re joining in is a kind of performance of imagination. This is probably true to some degree of all books, but in 1Q84 and Lightning Rods I get the feeling that the imaginative origins of these books are much more open, less obscured by technique than we usually experience. They feel honest to me.

Now, that doesn’t mean I love or even like both books unreservedly, but it goes a long way to explaining why I have significant warmth towards these books despite what I see as shortcomings in each.

I’ve also been thinking about a question commenter Bill Hughes asked after 1Q84’s quarterfinal match against The Tiger’s Wife:

All of you writing teachers out there. If you can, imagine if some random student submitted the first 50 pages of 1Q84 to be “workshopped.” I imagine that the criticisms would be savage. If this wasn’t Murakami, say it was Skeeter Jones, my belief is that the opinion about this would be totally different. The opening rambles relentlessly, and does not hook us in. The prose is clunky.

It’s a really interesting question, and since we might not have 1Q84 to kick around anymore, I want to try to answer it.

I can’t speak for all writing teachers, but I can weigh in for myself. I think Bill Hughes’s indictment of the book—rambling, no hook, clunky prose—is all fairly easily supported. I also think that these traits fly in the face of a lot of the proscriptions writing teachers like me hand down to students, so I understand why someone would think Murakami would get savaged in a workshop.

I don’t like that term, “workshop.” I tend to associate workshops as places we think things are broken, and often writing workshops can work this way, where we gather to diagnose the patient’s illness as measured against the criteria we can articulate (good hook, focused story, elegant prose) in an effort to cure what ails the story and hopefully send it on its way to a healthy life.

But here’s an embarrassing confession. I’ve never managed to publish a story that I’ve workshopped, and through college and graduate school I workshopped many, many stories. The problem for me was always that once 10 to 12 other people weighed in on my story, often with good and incisive ideas about what the story might benefit from, I could never synthesize that information in a way that would let me re-attack the piece. The patient was dead on the table. So once I started teaching creative writing myself, I cast about for a better word (for me) than “workshop,” and for now, I’ve settled on “laboratory.” In a lab, we experiment, and that’s what I think people should be free to do in the context of a creative writing class.

Sure, I try to fill my students’ heads with sound advice and guidance and ways of approaching successful storytelling. But what I try to remind them and myself is that these things I’m saying are things we know about how effective stories tend to work, how many other stories have worked in the past, and are therefore good things to know, but they are not exclusive. They are not necessary, and what we need to be looking for and attuned to in our lab is not a checklist of traits compatible with life, but with life itself, which is something we feel, rather than something we know, intellectually.

My mentor in graduate school, Robert Olen Butler, used to tell us that fiction is the art form of human “yearning” and stories that had yearning were successful and those that didn’t were not. I won’t lie. I chaffed under this notion. I probably still do to some extent, but I can’t say it’s wrong. He was telling us that either a story is alive or dead and if something is dead, no amount of flogging the corpse is going to bring it to life.

So, back to Bill Hughes’s question. This writing teacher would read the first 50 pages of 1Q84 and think that it was very, very strange and sort of off-putting and violates all kinds of things that I’ve told students they should consider for effective storytelling, and yet, I would hope that I would put that aside and recognize the life that’s clearly present. (For me, anyway.)

Or, in the words of commenter CJRICE, “Murakami no have MFA folks. Merely wild imagination. Marathon striving. Everyday heroics. Me like.”

That said, it is by far not the best Murakami I’ve read—I think it could 300 pages shorter without sacrificing any essential Murakami-ness, and I still haven’t finished the book.

But I will.

Kevin: A book that makes you work as much as 1Q84 is going to make you feel one of two ways—invested or resentful. And I wonder if that’s why even the people who like the novel seem mostly disappointed in the ending. They wanted more payoff in return for their investment.

Of course, the payoff at the end of Lightning Rods is sort of like the payoff at the end of a Hershey bar. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that remained so thoroughly the same thing all the way through. And yet satisfying, at least to me.

And by the way, hello Michelle Orange! You and I and she used to hang out on a bookish message board about a decade ago, back when that was a thing people used to do. People probably still do that, actually. Maybe you still do that. I don’t know why I don’t do that anymore. Probably has something to do with the eight-year-old and the five-year-old whom, because I am up against the deadline on this commentary and need five minutes of uninterrupted typing time, I just now gave permission to play with actual golf balls in the house.

This is just about the stage in the tourney where the Big Book usually gets bounced. Of course at this stage it’s up against a tested (and leaner) opponent. And although hardly anyone knows exactly what to make of Lightning Rods, it still seems to pass whatever test the judges put up against it.

Nobody seems to know quite what to make of 1Q84, either. Maybe the problem, finally, is that no one knows exactly what test they should even be giving it.

John, I’m going to put you on the spot, since I haven’t done that yet this year. Let’s say a student of yours did turn in the opening of 1Q84 as an assignment, as Bill suggested. Keeping in mind that you are not critiquing Murakami, who has earned the right to break rules when he wants, but rather a 19-year-old kid who is still learning those rules in order to break them when he’s older, specifically what would you write on the last page of that assignment?

John: Part of this is an easy question. If I’m teaching a creative writing course where my students are supposed to work on novels, on the last page of that assignment I would write something like “go go go go go go go go go,” because the 50 pages would give me plenty of indication that this person has the ability and imagination to weave a fictional world together and at that point, I think you tell someone to put their head down and not look back. Novels have to be at least 60,000 words, and unless and until that happens, you don’t have a novel, so if they’ve got the momentum, I’m not going to stop them.

I’m also not sure I believe in that whole “earned the right to break the rules” business. I think there are some writers (me) who are slow learners who do need to go through a process of learning the rules until they are part of one’s subconscious and only then you can begin to develop your own (probably ever-evolving) style, which will show less adherence to the rules and probably be better for it.

Other writers, including Téa Obreht, have what I can only call a gift, and teaching them rules is sort of a waste of time. This isn’t to say genius can’t be improved upon, but by and large, I think it’s better to just get out of the way and let them roll until they can’t roll no more and reach out for assistance, in which case a good teacher can offer some insight that will wind them up again.

After every class discussion I also have one-on-one conferences with students. It’s probable that the student, the non-Murakami author of 1Q84, has gotten cuffed around in the class discussion because in those atmospheres other students sometimes do that not out of jealousy, but in order to impress the instructor that they’ve been listening to what he has to say about effective storytelling. In that case, the first thing I might tell this student is to stop listening to those assholes—myself included.

In that same conversation I might ask some big-picture questions about his plans for the architecture of the novel going forward, because if I’m teaching a class in novel-writing (which I haven’t done, but think about often), we’ve spent the first month examining novels and how they’re constructed because I think the single most difficult part of writing a satisfactory novel is figuring out what container to put the story inside.

I would ask him something like how much time is going to pass inside of the book, or what other characters he thinks might appear down the road. I would ask how much story time he wants to use to convey the chronological time inside of the novel so he begins thinking at least to some degree about length.

I’d probably want to have a conversation about perspective, if the initial choice on that front is one that’s going to work for the duration of the novel, or if we might need to think of different or multiple approaches.

Mostly, though, I’d get out my pompoms and megaphone and yell, “Go team!”

Kevin: Indeed. And while you’re at it, give me an R-O-D-S! Lightning Rods heads into the semifinals, while the never-quite-embraced but still much admired 1Q84 heads for the Big Book Boneyard.

Because not only did our judges never quite warm to the Murakami, neither did our voters. 1Q84 was not marked on enough ballots to put it in our top two, so The Art of Fielding and State of Wonder would still be our Zombies if that round started today.

But we have one more semifinal to go before that day of reckoning. Tomorrow it’s Open City versus The Sisters Brothers. That’s a lot of walking, a lot of riding, and a lot of thoughtful contemplation of one’s sins.

It’s the final week. Keep it here.

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